Darkening Sky, Chapter 9

  • Chapter 9





                    Pain washing over him, wrapping around him, encompassing him like a foul-smelling blanket.


                    Harrow resisted the urge to groan as his faculties returned. There might still be enemies nearby, in which case playing dead was the best option. He concentrated and listened. No footsteps or conversations – if there was anyone close, they were likely by themselves. Two others were breathing steadily beside him, the pattern of their lungs familiar and comforting. Diia and Ambarro.


                    Opening his eyes, he sat up. The first thing he saw was Longinus’ corpse, flung off to the side of the courtyard like a discarded toy. The hole that the Yamayubi produced stared at him emptily. He stared back for a few seconds, then turned his attention to the figure kneeling in the centre of the yard with her back to him.


                    Grey tunic, golden fur, sharp ears always turned to the wind and a katana sheathed on the left hip. ‘Master,’ Harrow breathed, relief flooding through him like warmth from a fire as he gazed at Unaka’s silhouette against the sunrise. We’re saved.


                    He was about to call out to her when his eyes narrowed. Something was off – her body language seemed vastly different from her usual relaxed self.


                    Unaka’s shoulders were tensed, shaking visibly. The rise and fall of her torso told him that her breathing was ragged and irregular. One of her hands was pressed to her face, and her fingers were trembling. She shook her head, and to his dismay, Harrow heard what sounded like sobs.


                    ‘Rashid,’ she gasped, her palm muffling her voice. ‘Big brother.’


                    Harrow tried to stand, but straightening his abdomen produced an intense wave of agony and he froze, wincing. My spleen is still severely damaged. Master healed me, but only enough to save my life.


                    Wounded as badly as he was, though, something still compelled him to go to Unaka’s side. He had never seen her so distressed, so vulnerable.


                    She was speaking to someone lying in front of her. Harrow’s vision was still blurry and fizzling with red and black, and he had to squint to make out who it was. He caught a glimpse of dark skin and a heavy turban. The Redguard swordsman?


                    ‘I’m sorry,’ Unaka continued, hiccupping. ‘I’m so sorry, Rashid. I’ve sent him on ahead to the Far Shores. I hope the two of you can meet up there and…’


                    The Po’ Tun looked up at the sky. ‘Please don’t hate me too much?’


                    The only response was a fresh howl of icy mountain wind.


                    Shuddering, Unaka lowered her head and turned just as Harrow started to crumple and buckle under his wounds, his motions finally drawing her attention.


                    There were tears running from her eyes, leaving dark trails in her fur. Harrow instantly forgot all about his own pain. His Master was crying. His Master, who had worn nothing but a smile on her face for every minute of her life, the most cheerful soul in Tsukikage, the strongest, most wilful being he had ever known, was crying.


                    The teacher’s eyes met her student’s, and for a while both were still.


                    ‘Harrow,’ Unaka said lightly. ‘M’boy.’


                    She ran towards him, and Harrow prepared himself for the rap on his head, the lecture she was surely about to give him for his failures. Unaka grabbed him by the shoulders.


                    And then she pulled him into a fierce hug, clinging to him like a drowning sailor to a piece of flotsam.


                    ‘Master?’ What on Nirn happened?


                    Unaka said nothing and her arms only tightened, almost hurting him – but even as disturbed as she was, she had enough self-control to avoid further injury.


                    I’m no better than the dunce when it comes to emoting, Harrow thought helplessly. Right now, being here is… all I can do.


                    He raised one arm, the one that hadn’t been broken, and after a moment of hesitation – this was rather inappropriate behaviour as a junior and a student – laid it on Unaka’s slender back.


                    ‘Master,’ he murmured into her shoulder. ‘I’m here.’


                    Unaka let out one last, quavering sigh and was still.


                    As her grip finally began to loosen, Harrow looked past her, turning his gaze to the Redguard swordsman, whom she had been kneeling in front of earlier.


                    The mercenary was clearly dead. His face was already beginning to assume a bloodless pallor, and that combined with the ebony of his skin to form a sickly grey shade. Harrow had seen dead Redguards and Dunmer before, and this was nothing unusual – what was unusual was the amount of care Unaka had given to the body. The swordsman’s arms were clasped beneath a single stab wound on his chest and his eyes had been closed. A serene smile was drifting on his face. He had died smiling like that, Harrow realised. At peace and content.


                    Unaka released him, patting him on the shoulder. She was grinning again, as if nothing had ever happened. ‘Sorry about that, m’boy.’


                    Harrow had a horde of questions screaming inside his head. Who was the swordsman? What happened when he was unconscious? And who was this ‘Rashid’? But one glance at Unaka’s smile and he wavered. This is how you should look, Master. This is how you should always look.


                    In the end, he resolved to keep his silence about the dead man in front of them. I never want to see her like that again.


                    And so he simply asked, ‘Are you all right, Master?’


                    Unaka gave his shoulder a squeeze as she went to rouse Diia and Ambarro.


                    ‘I’m fine, kit. Just fine.’


                    Vorstag ran faster than he had ever run his entire life.


                    They had been waiting on the other end of the rubble for Longinus and Relnar when the shadow came, barely five minutes after the great roar of thunder. There had been an inhuman hiss of rage behind them, and before Vorstag could look around, he heard Culverin give a shriek of panic and a single spell fly from his hands. Then a shape blurred past him with a metallic hum. Before he could see exactly what it was, Culverin’s newly severed head rolled to a stop against his boots, a stare of intermingled terror and confusion frozen on the Dunmer’s face.


                    That was the last straw.


                    As the mercenary sprinted down the mountain, slipping and tripping every few dozen steps, he cursed the elven collector – Dagon take you, whoever you are – for sending them on this fool’s errand. No relic is worth this.


                    To his utter relief, the sun had begun to rise. He was still jumping at every shadow, but it was growing lighter and the path ahead was large free of trees. From here on it was a straight shot down to even land.


                    He kept one hand on his axe as he fled. The mountains were bitter cold, but he was soon dripping sweat onto the hilt. It would be dangerous to stop moving now – if his sweat froze over, he was done for, even with his Nord blood.


                    So he kept running all through the day. As the shadows shortened and slowly began to lengthen again, he felt the fear return, closing on his throat. And then night fell and he let out a yell of despair. It had taken the group weeks to hike up the mountain, almost a month. What hope had he of making it back in one day?


                    He threw off his armour, piece by piece, but the lightened load did nothing to help him as fatigue finally set in, dragging at his feet, heavier than any steel plate. Still he ran, his breath coming out of his lungs in shouts of frustration. Not fast enough. Not fast enough!


                    Something twitched behind him, at the very edge of his vision. Roaring, Vorstag drew his axe. ‘Come on, then!’ he screamed. ‘Come get me!’


                    His voice echoed back at him. ‘Come get me! Come get me! Come get me!


                    Panting, he raised his axe with both hands shaking, teeth bared in a desperate snarl, his eyes straining in the pitch darkness.


                    Nothing jumped out at him; no monster’s claws or unholy blade rent his flesh, and he began to calm down, little by little. Grabbing the torch on his belt, he lit the fat-soaked wood with his tinderbox. The light threw the shadows around him into disarray, and he felt his heart jump.


                    Nothing, he realised after standing rooted to the spot for a full minute. I’ve lost them, whatever they were.


                    Still, it would be folly to linger atop this cursed mountain. Continuing at a slower pace, Vorstag made his way down, his nerves loosening slowly with each passing day as he saw more and more signs of civilised life. The warlords he could not reason with he stole past, and some of the mountain villages offered him shelter in exchange for a few septims when it was finally low enough for settlements to start popping up. Vorstag assumed that coin was of more value here, given the villagers’ meagre existence.


                    When he finally crossed the border and saw Neugrad in the distance, his shoulders relaxed fully. Home at last. Skyrim’s cold was almost as severe as the chill of the Jeralls, but it was a familiar cold, its bite an old friend. He flashed his papers at the Legionnaires on border patrol, then got on the first carriage to Markarth.


                    The Silver-Blood Inn was bustling with activity when he pushed inside. Inhaling the rich scent of meat and ale, he took his usual place by the fire, ignoring the bounty board propped up to his right and the patrons milling around the bar.


                    I’ve had enough excitement for a week, Vorstag grimaced. From now on, I’m never taking another job outside of the province.


                    ‘Kleppr’, he said hoarsely, drawing an irritated twitch of the head from the surly barman. Another argument with his wife, most likely. He flicked a few coins towards the counter. ‘Mead.’


                    ‘Well, look what the cat dragged in,’ a saucy, smooth voice purred to his right.


                    ‘Leave him be, lad, the man looks like he ran here straight from Cyrodiil.’ A rougher, more raspy voice came from his left.


                    Vorstag grunted, nodding once each at the mage and the spellsword. His mead came and he took a swig. ‘Marcurio. Belrand. What brings you sparklers all the way to Markarth?’


                    ‘Sparklers,’ Marcurio repeated, beady Imperial eyes narrowing. ‘I’ll have you know-’


                    Belrand cut in before the two could start bickering. ‘Border skirmish in Jehanna. Things got hairy, so we lent our blades and magicks. Thought we’d stop by, grab a drink before we split up and set off on our way back.’


                    Scowling, Vorstag spat into the fire. ‘Border troubles getting worse each year. Things would never have gotten this far under Istlod.’


                    The older man snorted. ‘Lad, are you even old enough to remember what it was like with Istlod as High King? Because I do, and let me tell you, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows spewing from his nethers like the elders spin it. Torygg is doing the best he can to hold things together.’


                    Vorstag scoffed. ‘The best he can to lick the Thalmor’s boots, perhaps.’


                    Marcurio yawned. ‘I didn’t come to discuss politics. Alto wine!’ And a bottle was thrust into his hands.


                    As the three mercenaries drank, Vorstag saw Belrand sneak a glance at the bounty board. Looking for a chance to earn some quick gold, no doubt. The spellsword’s expression sharpened as he looked, and his interest was infectious. Vorstag followed his gaze to the board and felt his blood freeze in his veins.


                    ‘One thousand septims just for going up the mountain, and another thousand for each relic collected?’ Belrand muttered. ‘Must be a damned rich collector. Oi, Marcurio, come take a look at-’


                    Vorstag tore the notice from the cork of the board, his breath catching in his throat.


                    ‘What’s the big idea?’ Marcurio complained, shooting him an annoyed glare.


                    ‘You don’t understand,’ he stammered, and saw his two colleagues’ faces grow alert as they listened. Vorstag never stammered. ‘That mountain… is a death trap.’


                    Belrand frowned. ‘I’ve heard the stories, but surely a few ghosts-’


                    ‘The stories? The stories are children’s tales compared to what truly haunts those frozen wastes. It’s not ghosts, I’m sure of that much. I don’t even think they’re normal undead, having been up there myself.’


                    ‘You’ve been there?’ Marcurio interrupted. ‘Excellent! We could work much faster with you as a guide-’


                    ‘No,’ Vorstag yelped, loud enough for most of the conversations in the inn to grind to a halt. ‘No,’ he said again, more quietly but also more forcefully. ‘I’m not going back up even at swordpoint.’ He shook his head slowly, emphatically, staring the two other men dead in the eyes. I must look like a madman. Good. So long as I get the point across. ‘And believe you me, gentlemen, if you value your lives you will do the same.’


                    There was silence for a time, then Marcurio chuckled nervously. ‘You know what? I think I’ll pass on this one.’


                    ‘Aye,’ Belrand muttered, visibly disturbed. ‘I will be happy going to my grave not knowing the horrors that lie atop that flat peak. I’m sorry for what you must’ve been through, brother Nord.’


                    Vorstag nodded, his zeal subsiding, relieved that he had managed to convince them. ‘Thank the gods I was here to stop you,’ he sighed, grasping his tankard with both hands. ‘Whatever monstrosities dwell there don’t take kindly to intruders.’


                    The trio of mercenaries continued drinking as they moved on to lighter topics. On the opposite table, a tall, hooded Altmer picked up a long stick he had left propped up against the wall. The stick resembled a walking staff, but was narrower and the top foot of the polished wood was concealed behind a bundle of cloth.


                    The elf inclined his head towards the bounty board, the hood hiding his eyes, then walked quietly out of the inn.








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6 Comments   |   A-Pocky-Hah! and 5 others like this.
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  October 8, 2017
    hehe, yeah, somebody's making a return!
    • Hworra
      The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      hehe, yeah, somebody's making a return!
        ·  October 10, 2017
  • Shadow Host
    Shadow Host   ·  October 8, 2017
    Of all people you have Vorstag survive. Such a bungler :D But good that Belrand decided not to take the bounty, he´s a smart one. And elves with sticks in the shadow, eh? :)
    • Hworra
      Shadow Host
      Shadow Host
      Shadow Host
      Of all people you have Vorstag survive. Such a bungler :D But good that Belrand decided not to take the bounty, he´s a smart one. And elves with sticks in the shadow, eh? :)
        ·  October 8, 2017
      The older ones are usually smarter... and interested in the elf's stick, are you, Karver-jo? >w0
      • A-Pocky-Hah!
        The older ones are usually smarter... and interested in the elf's stick, are you, Karver-jo? >w0
          ·  October 8, 2017
        Wow, you actually became way more perverted than Phil...
        • Hworra
          Wow, you actually became way more perverted than Phil...
            ·  October 9, 2017
          I-I'm not perverted! Kaiser-jo is a meanie! >n<